There are some major musical instruments, instruments for which a great deal of music has been written, that just don't seem to lend themselves to jazz. The three that come to mind instantly are the violin, organ, and accordion [George Shearing’s definition of a gentleman: “Someone who can play the accordion, but doesn’t”]. And there have been damned few jazz virtuosos on these instruments. Stephane Grappelli and Stuff Smith would certainly qualify on violin, as would Joe Venuti and Jean-Luc Ponty. Popular jazz accordionists are as rare as hen's teeth. For me, Art Van Damme stands out, as do the great Zydeco stars Boozoo Chavez and Clifton Chenier.
More jazz musicians have tried their skill at the electric organ – probably because more jazz musicians played piano – but few have excelled. Fats Waller played organ in movie palaces to accompany the films being shown, and taught Count Basie the technique while the young Basie literally sat at his feet to understand how the pedals worked. There are a number of great Rock-influencing musicians who have played jazz organ: Bill Doggett, Dr. John, Wild Bill Davis, and Billy Preston. If you add in Richard “Groove” Holmes, Herbie Hancock, Jimmy McGriff, and Johnny “Hammond” Smith you've got a pretty good sampling.
And then there's Jimmy Smith (1925 - 2005). In a class by himself.
Smith grew up in Norristown, PA., a small, blue-collar working class suburb of Philadelphia. He started playing the organ in church as a teenager, came to prominence early, and was playing in clubs by the time he was 17. His blistering, swinging style made him the most influential jazz musician on that instrument in the 20th Century. Someone once called him the Charlie Parker of the Hammond, and it's not a bad description. His creativity and virtuosity, sheer exuberance and wild flights of blurringly fast, pulsating runs have never been bettered, never even equaled. But he could also play so mournfully it makes you cry; witness his opening to “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue”, or the incomparable “I’ll Close My Eyes”. When Jimmy Smith sat down at that imposing keyboard, what came out is a whirling, undulating, moaning wall of blues, swing, gospel, and bop that truly makes a joyous noise and lifts the soul.
Funnily enough, he was never just for aficionados and jazz snobs. Over twenty of his jazz albums crossed over to the pop charts in his long career, and his golden hits are still well-known and continue to enthrall and inspire: songs such as “Walk on the Wild Side”, “The Cat”, “Funky Broadway”, “Organ Grinder's Swing”, “Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf”, “Got My Mojo Workin'”, and “The Champ” continue to mesmerize and transfix us today as when first recorded. Virtually every jazz group at one time or another has had these classics in their repertoire.
My favorite Jimmy Smith album is the towering “Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf”. The title song itself is a nine-minute, two-part masterpiece, a virtual cathedral of sound that blares, howls and moans, wails and shakes the place apart like Joshua at Jericho. It's easily the most powerfully driving number you'll ever hear. The Woolf album additionally contains the memorably swinging jazz version of Richard Rogers classic “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue”, and the hippest rendition of “John Brown’s Body” ever recorded.
You can wait around and hope, but you'll never hear anyone like Jimmy Smith again.
Prayer Meetin': Jimmy Smith with Stanley Turrentine (Blue Note)
Ultimate Jimmy Smith (Verve)
Jimmy Smith: Walk on the Wild Side (Verve)
Jimmy Smith: Standards (Blue Note)
Got My Mojo Workin' (Verve)
Hoochie Coochie Man (Verve)
Organ Grinder Swing (Verve)
The Incredible Jimmy Smith (Verve)
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Verve)
And for a real treat, take a listen to Jimmy Smith playing with Lou Donaldson, Kenny Burrell, and Art Blakey on Jimmy Smith – Lou Donaldson Quartet: Complete Studio Recordings (Imports Records, 2016). Many Smith aficionados prefer him with a trio or quartet, and this is Jimmy at his best: “Street of Dreams,” “Lover Man’” and a hand-clapping version of “Just a Closer walk with Thee” are only a few of the treasures on this 24-cut masterwork.
G. Bruce Boyer